As someone who watches a lot of detective/crime dramas from everywhere, my verdict is that this one that does almost everything right. I say "almost" because there are a few niggly things in the storyline further along in the story that did frustrate me but as a whole the juggling act is quite commendable particularly when it positions itself fundamentally as a wuxia story. There have been quite a few offerings from Mainland China this year in the genre but the quality has been a mixed bag. The biggest problem, to my mind, is that most shows struggle to get the balance right. Characterization, relationship dynamics, romance, plotting, sub-plots. Some start off well enough but go off on tangents and lose their way. I sometimes wonder why directors and producers think that every drama in the crime genre has to have romance. It's clear that some shows don't lend themselves to romance or even if they did, the incorporation of it ends up being less than desirable. Fortunately this doesn't seem to be a problem here. Of the numerous C dramas that fall off the assembly line, this is actually one of the better products. I am supposing that the only reason why it's escaped wider notice is because of lesser known cast of actors that spearhead the series.
The story of Ancient Detective revolves around a young detective, Jian Buzhi who has emerged from the famed Shenji Valley to find out what really happened 8 years earlier in an almighty altercation with the terror of jiang hu (or the martial arts community), Wang Hua. He is the son and surviving successor to the mantle of jiang hu's greatest detective Jian Jinhuan who died tragically in the carnage to stop Wang Hua in his rampage. To complicate matters, the young detective has no recollection of the event. Jian Buzhi is played by the relative newcomer, Yu Jiwei who embuse the character with gentle and youthful elegance. The show loses no time in introducing the character as one that follows the Sherlock Holmes template. Not only does he produce the culprit by keen observation and deductive logic, he saves the hide of an innocent man and meets first time the man who later becomes his protector and loyal companion, Zhao Wohuan. Zhao isn't just his offsider. The bromance of the two men is one of the key elements in Jian's ability to navigate through the rough and tumble of jiang hu because Jian's Achilles' heel happens to be that he has no martial arts ability.
The romance serves the plot well. While they may be hints of a love triangle, none of that is played out fully or given full flight. The women in this show are independent, intelligent and logical human beings who never see themselves as victims of circumstances even when others might tempt them to do so. Jian's primary and only real love interest is Zhan Shiqi, a former mercenary/assassin now on the run from her former masters for absconding. The two only have eyes for each other and neither waver in the bumpy course of true love. Jian is an impressive figure, a purist and idealist for truth and justice so it makes perfect sense that the woman he falls for can't be an ordinary one.
Zhao has his own romance thread with the mysterious Ming Yue, a member of the Assassins Guild. His brave and simple devotion attracts her even while she wrestles with her feelings for him and her duty to the guild. Despite the braggadocio at his expense, his dogged loyalty to his bosom friend and his eagerness to protect everyone he cares about is very attractive. Even a woman skilled in the art deception can't resist its allure.
Integrated into the main storyline are several arcs that serve as hurdles/stepping stones towards Jian's search for the truth about the death of Jian Jinhuan, the missing Wang Hua's body and his own amnesia. As with all such tales, he has a mysterious adversary who seems determined for him not to get to the heart of the matter. Each arc sees Jian employing his detective acumen in criminal cases while looking for a surviving member of the campaign against Wang Hua. They are styled very much in the vein old school, classic British whodunits with their own twists and turns coloured with a wuxia flavour. As if the show isn't complicated enough, Jian is poisoned not once but twice and so he's also up against the clock to solve mystery after mystery in order to reach his final destination.
Jian has many others in his ever growing travelling entourage that support his endeavours. He is a man that commands deep respect and loyalty from encounters in his journey. The likeability and reliability of his character ensures that when he needs help from his motley crew of skilled individuals, they jump to his aid.
The thing that surprised me most about the drama is that it did have fairly sophisticated things to say about the wuxia genre and the nature of heroism. That was something I hadn't expected. The fact that the protagonist is someone who has no martial arts in such a context demonstrates a push to rethink what a jiang hu hero should look like. He is given a martial arts manual as is often the case in traditional wuxia but unlike the classic trope, he gives it away to his friend preferring to rely largely on his mental prowess to deal with his opponents.
This was a drama that I marathoned relatively easily in 2 days. It has a friendly 40 minute, 24 episode format. It's one I recommend unreservedly mainly for its overall consistency, decent performances and intriguing sub-plots.